Maze campaign bolsters UUP

PEYE Original 378748 42 Mike Nesbitt addressed an increasingly confident UUP at its party conference in Belfast. The real test for his leadership, though, will come in next spring’s local and European polls.

Ulster Unionists were buoyant at their conference at the Ramada Hotel after successfully campaigning for the suspension of the Maze conflict resolution centre. However, they are facing an uphill climb to gain ground from the DUP as next May’s elections approach.

The Maze move took the party to the right of the DUP, placing it alongside the TUV and UKIP. While he has styled himself as a forward-thinking leader, Nesbitt’s speech spent a considerable time discussing the past.

This is still a live issue for many UUP members who were bereaved or injured during the Troubles. Highlighting the Maze u-turn, Nesbitt name-checked the RUC widows and retired officers, the UDR Regimental Association, prison officers and “thousands and thousands of innocent victims.”

The party had also secured a re-writing of teaching notes about the hunger strikes and continued to oppose the current definition of a victim of the Troubles.

“The Maze proposal was wrong because it put too much emphasis on the victim-makers and trampled on the sensitivities of those they hurt,” he stated. “Our focus must always be on those who were given no choice about becoming a victim.” Nesbitt accepted that the new generation in Northern Ireland had “little or no interest” in the Troubles but he wanted to ensure that history was recorded accurately.

His alternative to the Maze proposal – an international trauma centre – would, in his view, repay the wider world for its support for the peace process. Nesbitt also made clear that the centre would be open “for everyone, even those for whom we have no sympathy” as ex-offenders often suffered from poor mental health.

As for location, he noted that Ormiston House in East Belfast was in public ownership but “lying empty.” The 13-acre site was purchased by the Assembly in 2001 for office accommodation and went back on sale in 2011.

On the economy, Nesbitt called for a new “ambition, and determination, and above all, pride in who we are and what we do.” Northern Ireland needed to celebrate its past successes and set its sights “on another golden era”.

Education

The UUP’s commitment card, though, names education as the party’s top priority. “Sinn Féin’s relentless assault on the grammar school sector is pure ideology,” Nesbitt remarked. The UUP would not bring back the 11-plus because it asked how intelligent a child was rather than: “In what ways are you intelligent, and how can I help you develop?”

A single education system was “100 years too late.” The province’s first Education Minister, Lord Londonderry, had aimed for this in the 1920s and a 1968 opinion poll found that 65-70 per cent of young people wanted to end segregation.

“Educating our children together from age four will inoculate them against the poison of sectarianism,” Nesbitt predicted. “I can put it no more simply than that.”

He saw “no issue we cannot resolve” in bringing the existing systems together. “If there is something that works for the children in your sector,” he said, addressing the Catholic Church, “then I want it for all our children.”

In closing, Nesbitt also proposed a “new covenant” for Northern Ireland. He recognised that the 1912 Ulster Covenant was exclusively unionist and a 21st century version had to include everyone. It would cover “a fairer education system, a stronger economy, better housing and a health service … free at the point of delivery.” Specific details are expected in the 2014 election manifesto.

Nesbitt did not refer directly to the flag and parades protests – which have been supported by some UUP members – but he did encourage unionism to “be generous” and recognise the overlap between Ulster, British, Irish and European identities.

MEP Jim Nicholson backed the UK’s EU membership, noting that “if you’re not in, you can’t win” and “there is too much at stake for simple knee-jerk reactions.” In Europe, more people than ever were “seeking their fair share of a smaller pot” and Nicholson cited his “experience and networks” in favour of his re-election.

SDLP links

Initially light-hearted, Danny Kennedy told delegates that “the clowns have lost their appeal” at Stormont. “With their poking each other in public and giggling about it in private, they have long ceased to be of interest or amusement,” he commented.

However, he quickly criticised the “lazy and arrogant” attitude of the DUP and Sinn Féin. Kennedy added that the UUP and SDLP “have the capacity to work together effectively once again, to provide lasting stability, to provide leadership and to once again provide the solid centre foundations, to build a better future for everyone.”

Mike Nesbitt’s leadership of the party is more secure after Basil McCrea and John McCallister left to form NI21. The party’s mood was also more confident and less divided than last year, although with only 13 MLAs, it has fallen into fourth place in the Assembly.

The UUP has struggled to get over the 100,000-voter mark since the Assembly was restored in 2007. Its support has wavered around 15 per cent and Nesbitt will count any increase as an early tangible success. Nicholson is expected to hold his seat as MEP next May but his vote has fallen in each consecutive election since 1994.

At local government, the party is strongest in the south and west of the province – where it rebuilt support under Tom Elliott’s leadership – but it lost 15 council seats in the greater Belfast area in the last election. Reversing its weak position in Northern Ireland’s capital – a 9 per cent share and three councillors – will be a particularly important priority for the UUP when the electorate votes next May.

Policy focus: transport

Transport policy is the highest profile area where the UUP can take credit for policies. Danny Kennedy is two and a half years into his term as Regional Development Minister.

In transport policy, the UUP had kept fare changes in line with inflation and was opposed to the privatisation of Translink, which would lead to “rampant fare increases and significant service cuts.”

Kennedy had kept the Derry-Coleraine line open and said that “we are looking seriously at the prospect of expanding [railways] once again.”

Extending the tax smart system to Northern Ireland train lines, he suggested, would reduce fares “overnight.” The scheme pays the cost of season tickets directly from salaries.

Kennedy’s Assembly Private Secretary is Danny Kinahan while Ross Hussey represents the UUP on the Regional Development Committee.

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